On -isms: Dash Review

By | Thursday, January 28, 2016 Leave a Comment
I believe I first heard about Northwest Press when I stumbled across The Legend of Bold Riley last summer. So when they came around with a Kickstarter later in the fall, I was ready to help out and I received out of that the first four issues of Dash by Dave Ebersole and Delia Gable.

The story starts with an almost-too-typical damsel in distress pleading for private investigator Dashell Malone to take her case, which she's curiously obtuse about. He agrees to at least sleep on it, but instead connects with his on-again-off-again lover, Plink. Before Dash can get back to his case, though, Plink is dead and Dash finds one of the damsel's distinctive earrings at the crime scene. Over the next few issues, Dash works to solve Plink's murder and uncovers an ancient Egyptian curse that has kept the Pharaoh Impetu in a state of near-death for centuries, and he's now going around taking the souls of the living to gain enough power to take over the world. (Dash manages to learn all this by the end of issue #4, the latest issue, but he hasn't actually confronted Impetu yet.)

The story is set in 1940, and it's got many of the hallmarks you might expect. The men mostly all still wear hats. Light switches are actually buttons, not switches. Pay phones with rotary dials were still a thing. Gable presents the artwork pretty straight, and doesn't try to go overly noir-ish or present the whole thing in sepia tones. But what sets Dash apart from your typical pulp-style adventure story is that Dash is openly gay. That's revealed on page 9 when he meets up with Plink (which is short for Johnny Plinketts, by the way) in a public park. A police officer Dash knows actually catches them in the park, and light-heartedly threatens to throw them in jail for public sodomy. Which Dash jovially points out won't actually happen until they get home.

Now, since Plink dies in issue #1, the opportunities for showing romance fall pretty quickly. The story is pretty much just a murder mystery with some spiritual Egyptian elements to it. But one of the interesting things in the characterizations here is that Dash is openly gay. In 1940. There's a flashback that suggests his outing was not by choice, and it makes clear that his sexuality killed his previous career in the police force. And there are, not surprisingly, some characters who take aggressive offense to Dash's very existence because of his sexuality. But there are still people who show friendship and compassion for Dash as an individual. He still has friends on the police force, for example. They were (evidently) friends before Dash was outed, and know/treat him as the man they knew, not as the derogatory labels that were slapped on him.

I don't know how typical this kind of treatment would have been in 1940. As a culture, we're generally told that homosexuality didn't exist before 1967. It did, of course, but the very notion of homosexuality was suppressed for the first half of the 20th century. It wasn't talked about it except to create laws forbidding it. So it went underground. In the closet. References became coded. Avowed bachelor, a sunset lover, wearing a light wristwatch... But friends knew. Rock Hudson's sexuality was no surprise. Liberace's sexuality was no surprise. Little Richard's sexuality was no surprise. Not to the people that knew them.

Dash is a solid story in and of itself. But what I find most intriguing is how the individuals of 1940 act and interact, knowing Dash's sexual orientation. Who accepts him, who tolerates him, and who actively hates him. The story doesn't at all revolve around Dash's homosexuality, and all of the characters seem well-rounded outside of whatever relationship they have with Dash, but that identity Dash brings to the table and how others feel about that make for an interesting undercurrent that runs through the book.
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